[Words: Paul d’Orléans.  Originally published in At Large Magazine]

He was a bitch from birth, or so said Virginia, the first woman to suffer Hunter Stockton Thompson, by pushing him complaining and bald into this world in 1937. He exited in the same state in 2005, taking a cue from Papa Hemingway and pulling the trigger on his inability to live up to a reputation for drink, drugs, mayhem, and – decades prior – the writing brilliance that secured a place in literary history. Long before a cartoon doppelganger overlapped and sucked the mojo from his real life, Hunter S Thompson was a ballsy and original human, the ‘pole around which trouble would occur’ according to a schoolboy chum. His authenticity was born of character, and not as in –acting; a charismatic little provocateur, he led a local street gang, who all agreed Hunter could ‘out think and out perform you’.

Thompson’s father Jack croaked a week before his 15th birthday, and Virginia washed her pain with booze. Hunter capped his high school career in Louisville with a month in jail for car theft, so never graduated, enlisting in the Air Force instead…but not until shooting every boat in the local marina beneath the waterline, sending most to the Ohio’s muddy bed. His early (but honorable) discharge in June ’58 might have been a summary of his whole life – “this airman, although talented, will not be guided by policy. Sometimes his rebel and superior attitude seems to rub off on other[s].” Reasons to live.

Hunter S. Thompson during his stint working as security at Esalen, 1963, aboard his 1948 Triumph

Thompson could ride bikes, shoot guns, and swallow drugs on par with any Angel, and his internal bullshit detector guided the story on this gang of romanticized losers. Motorcycle clubs had been chum to a media frenzy since 1947, when LIFE magazine ran Barney Peterson’s faked-up shot of a badly listing Eddie Davenport aboard a Harley-Davidson in Hollister. A patently false account of the Hollister street party – ‘Cyclist’s Raid’ – followed in Harper’s, which metastasized into ‘The Wild One’ movie. Thus began decades of shitty treatment for bikers, and demonization of the Hell’s Angels and most motorcyclists the press. Angels they were not, but any real societal impact was minimal, barring their glamorization as post-War boogeymen. In the context of such notoriety, ‘Hell’s Angels: the Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs’ was a huge success, and secured Thompson’s reputation as a journalist, although ‘Gonzo’, and the perfection of his writing style into literature, were as yet a few years away.

By late 1967, his small family decamped yet again from San Francisco, as Thompson envisioned an unpleasantly domesticated future there as ‘a magazine editor with a mortgage’. They headed for the mountains of Colorado. By 1968, royalties from ‘Hells Angels’ brought $15,000 (that’s 100 large today, an enviable sum for any writer), which Hunter turned into a brand new BSA A65 Lightning, ‘the fastest motorcycle ever tested by Hot Rod magazine’, and a few acres – Owl Farm- in the hamlet of Woody Creek, 14 miles outside Aspen.

Hunter S. Thompson during his research with the Hells Angels, 1966, with his Triumph TR6

Hot on the heels of the Thompsons, a significant chunk of the Summer of Love followed in 1969; hundreds of hippies came and stayed in the area. The mountain town buzzed from both hippies digging the spectacular views and clean air, and ‘land rapist’ developers who saw dollar signs in those same features. Older residents were simultaneously seduced by development money and its associated businesses, and mortified by hundreds of dirty hippies swarming their parks. Aspen’s police magistrate, restaurant owner Guido Meyer, decreed “Riots, hippies, beatniks. They are all the same; working from Moscow. Lawlessness and disorder will be our downfall,” and arrested anyone with long hair, handing out 90-day jail terms for vagrancy. The Aspen Times commented on Meyer’s tinpot tyranny, “having long hair, beards, and sandals is not yet a crime in this country. His lack knowledge for, and respect of, the law, make his tribunal a mockery of justice.”

Meyer met his match in Joe Edwards, a 29-year old lawyer (and biker) with a civil rights background, who’d just been hired as counsel by the Snowmass ski resort. Highlighting Guido Meyer’s outrageous and unconstitutional antics in State court was easy pickings for Edwards, as Meyer had neither law nor police training; both Meyer and the bulk of the town council were shortly ejected. Edwards noted, “They got their ears boxed, and the police chief was fired and the entire city council was ousted.” Thus Joe Edwards was an instant hero, and Hunter S. Thompson had a flash of insight: the swelling population of hippies and heads just might elect a new set of politicians. Thompson dubbed this ‘Freak Power’, and became Edwards’ de facto campaign manager for a run for mayor of Aspen in 1969. “The Old Guard was doomed, the liberals were terrorized, and the Underground had emerged, with terrible suddenness, on a very serious power trip. Throughout the campaign I’d been promising, on the streets and in the bars, that if Edwards won this Mayor’s race I would run for Sheriff next year … but it never occurred to me that I would have to actually run.”

Would you vote for this man? With his Freak Power badge, Thompson was hardly a traditional candidate for Sheriff

Edwards lost by 6 votes, but Thompson, his personal and artistic powers peaking, ran anyway, on a nationally watched ‘Freak Power’ campaign, whose logo was a double-thumbed fist clutching a peyote button, superimposed over a sheriff’s star. He brought real media savvy to the small town, buying radio time and producing a surreal TV ad of Hunter riding an enduro motorbike along a gravelly mountain road. Novelist James Salter (the best writer you’ve never read) narrated: “Hunter represents something wholly alien to the other candidates for Sheriff: ideas. And, a sympathy towards the young, generous, grass-oriented society which is making the only serious effort to face the technological nightmare we’ve created. The only thing against him is, he’s a visionary. He wants too pure a world.”

Thompson was a well-known journalist for ‘Hell’s Angels’, but his gonzo antics were not yet the stuff of legend. Still, his campaign pointed the way towards his literary future, the start of both his legend and downfall. He knew in his heart his bid for Pitkin County Sheriff would fail, but damned if he wouldn’t go out with a pyrotechnic, psychedelic circus. “Why not run an honest freak and turn him loose, on their turf, to show up all the normal candidates for the worthless losers they are and always have been?” The campaign was a gesamtkunstwerk, with writing, video, radio, posters, and even Thompson’s appearance contributing; he shaved his head to refer to his rival, the crew-cut Sheriff Carrol D. Whitmore, as ‘my long haired opponent’. Now an established resident of the area, he invaded town hall meetings wearing his trademark Converse All-Stars and shorts, but underneath the show and bluster was serious talk about dangers to the local environment from development and hunting and fishing, and railing against the ‘silly’ laws against marijuana. He also promised never to take mescaline on the job.

His campaign promises stretched far beyond the normal parameters of the job, and included building a large parking facility outside Aspen, tearing up all asphalt roads in town in favor of grass, and providing a fleet of public bicycles. Aspen would be re-named ‘Fat City’ to discourage development, and “the Sheriff’s office will savagely harass all those engaged in any form of land-rape.” The Sheriff and his deputies would be unarmed in public, to discourage ‘blood-baths by trigger-happy cops’, and would put ‘dope dealers’ in stocks on the courthouse lawn, as ‘no drug worth taking should be sold for money’; marijuana users would be ignored. Hunting and fishing by non-residents would be banned. A police ombudsman would keep track of power abuses, and a new drug treatment center would educate schoolkids on drug abuse. An office would be established to detect environmental crimes. All this was a clear fight against unbridled Capitalism, but the tone of the campaign, its big-pupil teeth gnashing, scared the shit out of the locals. Even worse, Thompson’s energy turned people on, and it was clear he had a lot of support. His ‘straight up Mescaline platform’ was pure druggy Dada, the coyote trickster path to Truth, and enough folks could see the wisdom beneath the madness that he almost won.

It took a cabal of Republicans, Independents, and Democrats (the ‘RID’) to foil the plan; they agreed not to run candidates against each other, and fight Freak Power together. There were threats of violence of course, so Aspen police recommended the Freak Power campaign offices be moved out to Thompson’s ranch, and that they arm themselves. The night of the election, Owl Farm took on the paranoid cast of Fear and Loathing, with stoned, gun-toting Freaks sweeping the property with flashlights, tensed for the imminent attack.

The ‘New Posse’ Freak Power card

Hunter considered his Aspen antics a failure before he’d even begun, and was too self-absorbed to acknowledge the long-term success of the Freak Power project. He was really a political Johnny Appleseed (who we’ve recently learned intended alcoholic applejack, not snacks for rosy-cheeked schoolkids). In the next election, the entire city council was ousted, and liberal candidates like Joe Edwards took office. The next sheriff, Bob Braudis, overhauled the office and was re-elected 5 times; he was a great admirer of Thompson, and wrote the forward to the book ‘Freak Power’ (where much of this information was sourced). Growth was also severely restricted in Aspen, maintaining its natural beauty and subsequently raising property values significantly. And the final coda, of course, is that Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational use of marijuana, a result dear to Thompson’s heart…the man who threw a pound of dope into a Kinshasa swimming pool rather than watch Muhammed Ali fight George Frazer.

Two years before he kicked his home state in the nuts with ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’, incidentally inventing a new form of literature, Hunter S. Thompson’s political lark exposed what was best about the man. He’d taken the hippies to task in ’67 for abandoning the civil rights movement and the New Left in favor of simply getting high, and pulled a political stunt not repeated until punk hero Jello Biafra garnered 7000 votes for mayor of San Francisco. Thompson’s last words were still on the rollers of his IBM Selectric when Juan Fitzgerald discovered him dead in 2005: counselor. It’s the word that sticks in your craw during Handel’s Messiah, that fearful and strange composition of awesome beauty. Beethoven uttered on his deathbed, ‘and he shall be called Wonderful.’ Hunter took the next line. Johnny Depp generously re-created the Freak Power campaign’s double-thumbed mescaline-clutching fist as the cannon from which his ashes were shot over Owl Farm.

What Thompson, and many others, thought about Richard Nixon in 1971…

 

 

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